A storm wraps around Saturn

By Phil Plait | July 6, 2011 12:48 pm

Last year, a giant storm erupted in Saturn’s northern hemisphere. It grew in size and length as Saturn’s mighty winds whipped it around the planet. The Cassini spacecraft took this gorgeous picture of it in late February, when the storm was three months old:

Saturn doesn’t do anything small, does it? [Click to enchronosenate.]

You can see the storm has actually wound entirely around the planet; just below the head on the left you can see light colored clouds that are actually from the tail of the storm that’s wrapped all the way around Saturn. Given Saturn’s diameter of about 120,000 km (72,000 miles) and the latitude of the storm (call it 45°), this monster system must be well over 300,000 km (180,000 miles) in length! That’s three-quarters of the way from the Earth to the Moon.


The storm is blasting out tons of radio noise, a sure sign that lightning must be dancing prodigiously beneath those clouds. The violence and raw power of this storm are amazing to ponder. Note that just the north/south extent of the storm is roughly the size of Earth.

And hmmmm. I guess we don’t name storms on other planets as we do on our home world. But if we did, may I suggest… Ouroboros?

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: Cassini, Saturn

Comments (57)

  1. Tim W

    I would go with Lister for the name.

  2. That’s incredible. Fantastic image as well. What causes a storm like that? How long could it last?

  3. WJM

    Wowsers! Early nominee for photo of the year?

    And hey – is there “audio” of that radio feed?

  4. You want to name it after the battery company from Red Dwarf? 😉

    Seriously, though, Saturn’s weather usually looks so subtle in visible light. This is… Wooooooow…

  5. andyo

    You think that’s a storm? Just wait till Richard Dawkins comments on it!

  6. Reuben Clamzo

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but it looks like it’s spiraling slowly toward higher latitudes.

  7. Shamik

    Also, Saturn in general is just really freaking big. Wow, 3/4 of the way to the moon!

  8. Wow! 300.000km! That’s about one lightsecond! Damn, that thing is big!

  9. Cmdr. Awesome

    I love photos of big storms from our friendly neighborhood gas giants. The perturbations and swirls are mesmerizing, and (I’m assuming) because they’re so thick with gas the storms turn into giant demonstrations of fluid mechanics.

    They’re awesome.

  10. Cindy

    I wonder if those storms make anti-matter like ones on Earth.

    See http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/GLAST/news/fermi-thunderstorms.html

  11. Sam H


    Jesus…I am totally speechless…just imagine…what it would look like down there

    Great Zeusian thunderbolts with the power output of entire countries focused in individual blasts, leaping from state-sized cloud to state-sized cloud, blown into great, thousand kilometer wide swirls and eddies in the supersonic winds…with the great bow of the rings and the distant outer moons reflecting the light of a distant sun, surrounded by brilliant, quickly changing optical effects in a navy-blue sky…

    Just…win. Totally, totally, totally awesome.

    “The Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”
    -JBS Haldane

  12. Sam H

    @5: I couldn’t agree more. Will Rebeccagate EVER END??? :roll:

  13. Gary Ansorge

    Ah, Ouroboros, good name. Better than Susan,,,

    ,,,and I thought the recent storms here in Georgia were big,,,

    So, what energy sources drive this monster?

    Gary 7

  14. flash

    A storm is gathering…

  15. Shane C

    How is it known for sure that it’s a purely atmospheric phenomenon (a storm) and not caused by something on the “surface” (I use the term knowing that Saturn may not have a well-defined interface between atmosphere and solid-state matter planet)? It has the appearance of something fixed in place around which winds and clouds create turbulence. I’d love to see an analysis; is there a link that you can give us?

  16. Georg

    This storm reminds me of a Karman vortex street.

  17. WJM

    @ Gary, “So, what energy sources drive this monster?”

    Turtles, all the way down!

  18. bigjohn756

    Wow! That looks like a rough storm. I sure hope the folks up there have plenty of insurance.

  19. arcblast

    the snake devouring its own tail… thats a perfect name for it! well done sir!

  20. Shane C:

    How is it known for sure that it’s a purely atmospheric phenomenon (a storm) and not caused by something on the “surface”

    I had the same thoughts. The fact that the visible part of the storm has been drawn out and wrapped around the planet makes me think that it’s being generated by something below the cloud tops, and which is rotating at a slower rate, allowing wind to blow the top of the cloud away from the source. (Picture all those volcano images posted recently on this blog, with the plume blowing away from the volcano itself.)

    For contrast, see Jupiter’s Red Spot.

  21. fmobus

    thanks Phil, for being an unstoppable source of awesome desktop background 😉

  22. Gary Ansorge

    18. WJM

    I just wonder what they’re fleeing,,,

    Gary 7

  23. Jonathan

    You had me at “Last year…”

    Thank you again.

  24. Brian Too

    How about SlinkyStorm? After all, it isn’t so much eating it’s tail as winding a spiral path around the planet.

  25. Gerry

    The Vortex BlimpPeople are getting annoyed at that metal thing passing by outside their rings and taking photos….

  26. Grand Lunar

    Saturn looks like it’s feeling jovial. :)

    Seriously though, it does resemble some of Jupiter’s patterns.
    So maybe if we figure out one, it can apply to the other?

    I wonder if this is a seaonal phenomenon on Saturn.

  27. Grand Lunar

    @13 Sam H
    “Will Rebeccagate EVER END”

    Only if people stop making conversation about it.

    Better to debate the SLS instead.

  28. @16. Shane C: the analysis is in 3 articles of the latest issue of Nature.

  29. Digital Atheist

    I nominate “Holy &^*{ that’s a big storm!” as the official name of pictured storm. 😉

  30. Jonathan

    “Digital Atheist Says:
    I nominate “Holy &^*{ that’s a big storm!” as the official name of pictured storm. ;-)”

    No, no : Holy Hal eakala!!!


  31. Messier Tidy Upper

    Saturn doesn’t do anything small, does it?

    Well it does do some very small moons, moonlets and some positively tiny ring particles – but then it does a huge number of them! 😉

    Beautiful gorgeous Saturn image. Thanks BA. :-)

    In honour of the recent earthly controva-storm can I suggest we call this the Skepchick Sexism Saturnian Super Storm or SSSSS? Its even onomatopoeiaic ie. sounds like the storm may sound. Or maybe the shorter hurricane Rebecca? 😉

    @13. Sam H. : I prefer the Greg laden’s term : Rebeccapocalypse.

  32. Sam H

    @33 Messier – nah, this controversy ain’t the end of the world – at least, not yet. :)

    @29 Grand Lunar: What’s an SLS? I’m pretty sure it isn’t Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, being some stain remover in toothpastes.

  33. don gisselbeck

    I thought the Worm Ouroboros was on Venus.

  34. Peter B

    It’s made the mainstream news: http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2011/07/07/3263260.htm

    Now the article contains this quote: “Storms occur on average once every Saturnian year – nearly 29.5 Earth years – and appear to be linked to the summer solstice, when the planet’s orbit brings it a bit closer to the Sun and its atmosphere warms a little.”

    Is Saturn’s perihelion linked to its solstice, or did they just mix up the terms?

  35. Messier Tidy Upper

    More about this here :


    Excerpt :

    The storm is about 500 times larger than the biggest storm previously seen by Cassini during several months from 2009 to 2010. Scientists studied the sounds of the new storm’s lightning strikes and analyzed images taken between December 2010 and February 2011. Data from Cassini’s radio and plasma wave science instrument showed the lightning flash rate as much as 10 times more frequent than during other storms monitored since Cassini’s arrival to Saturn in 2004.

    Seems this storm is a record breaker.

    @34. Sam H. : Yeah but I just like the name! 😉

    Although I guess in some ways its a bit unfair to Rebecca Watson, it’s more Richard Dawkins storm or the Elevator Guys one than hers – but enough of that here. Just hope it blows over soon.

  36. Gonçalo Aguiar

    Is that visible light?

  37. Wow, not just the storm, even the shadow of the rings look incredible strange! Didn’t ever thought about it…

  38. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Gonçalo Aguiar :

    From the first link in the posted item above :

    Images taken using red, green and blue spectral filters were combined to create this natural color view. The images were acquired with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera at a distance of approximately 1.4 million miles (2.2 million kilometers) from Saturn. Image scale is 80 miles (129 kilometers) per pixel. [Emphasis added.]

    Which I guess means a yes. :-)

  39. atombomb1945

    This does not look like a storm. It looks more like ejection from somewhere lower in the planet. If you look at the trail that has wrapped around the planet. It looks the same as if one were to put a constant drip of ink in water. If the water was flowing (in say a vortex) eventually, the ink would catch up to itself.

  40. Grand Lunar

    @34 Sam H
    “@29 Grand Lunar: What’s an SLS? I’m pretty sure it isn’t Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, being some stain remover in toothpastes.”

    The Space Launch System, the SDLV that Congress wants NASA to build.
    Thought every space buff knew this one!

  41. CR

    I agree that the storm is reminiscent of a terrestrial volcanic plume being swept away by prevailing winds, and thus wonder just what the source of this one is. Not volcanism, to be sure! But does the Saturnian atmosphere have ‘hot spots’ beneath its ‘surface’? Or are Saturnian winds coupled with the planet’s rotation just so significant that they stretch/distort the storm so that it looks–to our perspective–like a plume, but the storm is in reality an actual free-‘floating’ thing? (On that note, an earlier commenter pointed out that it appeared the storm is moving to higher latitudes. Is the storm gradually moving ‘upward’ to higher latitudes, or are the winds carrying its effects ‘downward’ to lower latitudes? Seeing some sort of time lapse of this storm would be very neat to see, if it were possible…)

  42. So how long will it be before the whackosphere begins citing this Saturnian storm as proof that comet C/2010 X1 is actually a brown dwarf being towed by a Manthourian invasion force from Tau Ceti coming to take over our planet and force us to adopt socialized medicine?

  43. CB

    The storm head is moving relative to the surface of Saturn, so while it may be that something deeper in Saturn helps instigate the storm, that it is a storm is pretty clear.

  44. global warming is now affecting Saturn.

  45. QuietDesperation

    Aw, crap. I wanted the non-dairy creamer.

  46. Matt B.

    I believe Saturn translates as “Cronos”, not “Chronos” (which is Time). SG-1 had the same mistake on Cronus’s throne on his hatak.

  47. .4ngryToasters

    Stunning picture. But if you ask me, that looks more like an eruption from deep within Saturn (seems like a storm might be subject to those high winds, but the source looks stationary). You figure there has to be tons of heat and pressure bearing down on the inner layers. If just one abnormally low pressure system were to form, who is to say it wouldn’t all come gushing out like a volcanic eruption?


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